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The Internet As America's One-Way Mirror On The World

The National Security Agency's spying on both its own citizens, and foreigners, has turned the idea of the "open web" on its head.

Logged on and watching
Logged on and watching
Andrian Kreye

-Op-Ed-

MUNICH - It’s not exactly what we had in mind by transparency.

The American National Security Agency (NSA) has turned the Internet into a global surveillance apparatus -- or at least that’s the impression you get when wrapping your brain around the massive effort that’s gone into scouring all channels of communication for suspicious keywords.

Once again, our understanding of the nature of the Internet -- and with it, our conception of the digital society -- has been shaken.

Instead of envisioning the web as an unknown continent that a new generation is exploring and conquering, the picture that now comes to mind is of a crummy little interrogation room -- with a table, two chairs, and a vast one-way mirror through which the powers-that-be can watch and hear what’s going on.

But it’s not as if we weren’t warned. Two years ago, writer and researcher Evgeny Morozov was the first person, in his book The Net Delusion, to paint a detailed picture of how the radical freedom and transparency of the Internet could also be used by dictatorships to track their citizens. We know from China, Iran and Syria that not only this is done-- but that the consequences for those tracked in this way can be brutal.

We didn’t expect it of the United States. After all, wasn’t it President Barack Obama’s first Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who went on the offensive for digital diplomacy? Her Senior Advisor for Innovation Alec Ross came up with many ingenious technological programs addressing some of the world’s greatest problems.

So that it should be the U.S. spying big time not only on their own but on the world’s population comes as confirmation of all those suspicions raised by conspiracy theories or action movies like the 1998 Will Smith film Enemy of the State.

There may be some good arguments for monitoring the Internet. Supposedly – the U.S. government is providing no details – a "major terrorist attack" on U.S. soil was foiled thanks to the surveillance. Terrorists, drug dealers and pedophiles have apparently been hunted down thanks to the surveillance. The standard argument of those in favor of this digital investigation bureau is that authorities are allowed to tap the phones of terrorists and dealers.

Under permanent surveillance

In an era when hardly anyone communicates by talking on the phone, with email, chats, social networks and texts the preferred means, all channels must be monitored. Or so the argument goes.


However there are big differences between listening in on a phone conversation and worldwide computer surveillance. And it is mainly the automatizing of the surveillance, in which keywords -- many of them out of context -- sound alarm bells, that turns Big Data from an opportunity to a threat.

Your name doesn’t have to be on an American No Fly List for you to understand how stubborn the profiles created by algorithms can be. Many a journalist who, in the course of doing research, has ordered books about unusual subjects has noted with amazement (looking at the “you might also be interested in this” list the bookseller’s site compiles automatically, based on orders) that they are now listed as anything from right-winger to Islamist to waltz-enthusiast.

What the scandal mainly shows, though, is that while the Internet may be a global medium, it continues to be first and foremost an American medium. The rest of the world is just a guest. And as such, it is under permanent surveillance. So behave yourself.

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